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WHEN "QUILTERS" arrived on Broadway in the fall of 1984, the Eastern press didn't quite know what to make of Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek's gentle little musical.

New York magazine noted that the show's success in Denver (where it originated), Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and even across the Atlantic (Edinburgh and Dublin) merely "proves . . . that bad taste is universal."The Big Apple's older and more prestigious New Yorker wrote it off as being "a theatrical piece about quilting."

C'mon, now!

That's sort of like saying "Sweeney Todd" is a musical about the meat pie business. Or "My Fair Lady" is about elocution. Or "A Chorus Line" is nothing more than fancy choreography.

Instead, "Quilters" is a moving, homespun musical about the hardy women who struggled - and survived - on the rugged American frontier.

You've heard of comfort food? "Quilters" is "comfort theater." And TheatreWorks West is closing its 1989-90 season with this lovely little show. It's scheduled to open Thursday, May 17, and continue in Walker Hall on the Westminster College campus through June 3.

Considering Salt Lake City's pioneer heritage, countless Utahns probably have, either carefully stored away in a trunk or, perhaps, still warmly covering a four-poster bed, a quilt that may have been lovingly sewn by a great-grandmother.

In "Quilters," the comforters do more than provide warmth on a chilly night.

Stitch by stitch, the patterns and fabric of the lives of nearly 60 different women become the patterns and fabric of quilt blocks signifying the various incidents and episodes they've endured.

The death of a child on the plains, the joy of a marriage, the anguish of seeing your livestock freeze in winter, the excitement of a cabin being built. As the womenfolk gather for quilting, their stories of courage become blocks for a quilt that - in the end - represents America's westward expansion.

While "Quilters" may have seemed out of place on Broadway (it was expanded considerably from its original 75-minute form), the show did manage to earn six Tony Award nominations, of which the lion's share in 1985 were won by another of that season's hot competitors - "Big River."

Both productions will be overlapping in Salt Lake City this month. "Big River" ends on May 19 at Pioneer Memorial Theatre (unless it's held over), and "Quilters" opens two days before that.

Director Fran Pruyn has been rehearsing an ensemble of eight local actresses for "Quilters."

None of them has seen other productions of the work, so they started from scratch and have no preconveived notions about what the final result should be.

Pruyn said that set designer Marni Sears "has done a lot of research. She's gone back to the original quilt books, including some of those from which the play was written."

Local Quilt Guild chapters have been very helpful, said Pruyn.

"There's been phenomenal support from local quilters. We went to a quilting day at Colonial House, and they showed us how to do the various stitches. They let the actresses work on the quilt for awhile.

"It's an incredible folk art. It takes every range of talent and skill and composition," Pruyn said.

"I don't think I have ever worked with a show that was so ensemble oriented," she added, noting that it's been frustrating, getting everyone in the cast and the musicians to coordinate their many day-to-day routines for the rehearsals.

Pruyn explained that "Quilters" isn't the kind of show that you can rehearse different groups of players at different times.

"You need all the actresses there, and even the music is integrated into all the speeches," she said.

The cast for TheatreWorks West's production of "Quilters" includes Victoria Ames, Kathryn Feigal, Rebekah Folsom, Naomi Leach, Carol Moon, Karen Nielsen, Teresa Sanderson and Stacee Sherwood.

Jeffrey Price is musical director with Catherine Owen as lighting designer and Marni Sears as set designer.

Oh, those East Coast critics we mentioned earlier? Not all of them disliked the show.

Stanley Kauffmann, writing for Saturday Review, said, " `Quilters' very quickly establishes its respect for the lives of its people, its intent to do more than wring them for easy sentiment."

While admitting that the show hardly tells the entire story of the nation's westward expansion, Kauffmann said, "What it does tell, it often tells movingly." The Denver Center Theater's original touring production of "Quilters" first came to Salt Lake City for two nights at the Capitol Theatre in the spring of 1985. The show was immensely popular throughout the West, which is understandable.

It's about the West.

It's a heartwarming look at our own pioneer heritage.

It'll be nice to welcome "Quilters" back home where it belongs.

The show opens May 17 and continues through June 3.

Tickets are $10 each with discounts for senior citizens and students (with valid ID). The show runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. For reservations, which are recommended, call 583-6520.